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A new study shows nearly half of the elderly population who remained uninfected with COVID-19 are at the highest risk of hospitalization and death. Experts say this underscores the importance of vaccination and regular testing.
The study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Oct. 30 found that by July 2023, more than 80 per cent of children and adults younger than 50 had been infected and had a low risk of severe outcome in Lower Mainland, B.C.
The findings also show more than 40 per cent of adults aged 80 and older had never been infected with COVID-19 and had the highest risk of hospitalization and death.
"These findings confirm what we've known for a while, that older individuals are at highest risk if they get COVID. And in addition, folks who have other underlying health issues are at particular risk as well," said Dr. Andrew Pinto, director of Upstream Lab at St. Michael's Hospital.
The authors of the study estimated between July and December 2022, the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 was about one in 30 new infections among people 80 years and older, which was about 10 times higher than the risk among children younger than five years of age.
COVID is still with us, even though we all want to put the pandemic behind us.Dr. Andrew Pinto
"This virus is going to stay with us, and similar to influenza, be part of our lives and continue to come back. We won't be able to get rid of it because it's actually now part of not only humans, but animals as well," he added.
How to stay safe against COVID-19?
Pinto explained vaccination is still one of the best ways to protect yourself and others.
"I know that many folks are tired of getting COVID vaccines because throughout the pandemic, there were multiple doses. If we start to think of it as a seasonal virus similar to influenza, it'll be really important to make that part of a fall/winter routine, to get one's vaccine," he said.
As the Government of Canada puts it, vaccination works by exposing the body to "key parts of bacteria or viruses, called antigens."
"Later, if we are exposed to that same bacterium or virus, our immune system will be able to recognize the antigen and respond more quickly to help prevent us from getting the disease or from getting seriously ill," the government stated.
Pinto said the messaging of vaccination campaigns may not be coming through as clearly because a lot of public health organizations are operating with very limited resources, but it's essential that seniors get their updated shots.
"It could be more than a year since Canadians got a COVID vaccine, so their protection is lower and also the latest vaccines cover the most recent strains," said Pinto.
"I guess an analogy is thinking of it like updating your software on your phone or computer. You need to have the most recent to help protect you," he added.
I am seeing a lot of my older patients not getting their vaccine... It worries me.Dr. Andrew Pinto
Pinto explained the study showed there's still a large number of older individuals who were never naturally infected and thus don't have natural immunity.
"They should be absolutely getting their vaccine. As a family physician practicing, I am seeing a lot of my older patients not getting their vaccine," said Pinto. "So it worries me that in the winter time, these older individuals who did not get their vaccine [will] get sick and that we'll end up having a big swell of people… and suddenly it'll create a strain on the health system."
Keep testing for COVID-19, expert says
Even though testing for COVID has fallen out of practice, Pinto claimed it's important for seniors to consider testing themselves.
He said testing could confirm it's COVID and not some other virus. This will lead to a change of behaviour and prevent people from spreading it to others by keeping their distance from others and wearing a mask.
Testing could also help in determining appropriate treatments like Paxlovid, which reduces the severity of the infection and the risk of getting long COVID in seniors.
According to the Canadian government, Paxlovid is used in adults to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 infection and who have a high risk of getting severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death.
Those who may still have old COVID-19 rapid tests can use those. People who want to get PCR test or another pack of rapid tests, can do so by checking their provincial public health website, said Pinto.
"It'll vary based on where you live in Canada, but it'll likely be at a pharmacy, a clinic, or a grocery store, or directly from public health sent to you."